By Julia Poska
Iowa City is promoting local food in a new way this summer, filling more than 40 community planters throughout the city with fully edible plants for the first time.
The planters offer residents tastes of familiar vegetables such as cherry tomatoes and kale as well as less common edibles — nasturtium leaves and lemony Signet Marigolds. Signs in and around the planters mark the plants as edible and ask passersby to “Please Sample.”
“The pots around the city are a place to show all the citizens kind of what they can do themselves,” said Tyler Baird, a horticultural specialist with the Iowa City Parks & Forestry Department. “That’s one of the ways I approach it, showing everyone that edible plants are quite ornamental as well, and they can be something that doesn’t just have to be in a traditional vegetable garden.”
He said he hopes pedestrians will pick a few items to munch on the go and take the time to taste the more unusual edible plants. Though nothing is stopping anyone from harvesting everything all at once, the idea is to provide a light snack or garnish for a meal.
“There will be plenty for everyone,” Baird said. “If you have to break off a leaf or two of the chard or the kale to try it, it’s not going to hurt it. It’ll grow back.”
Baird, who proposed and led the project, said choosing the right plants was a challenge. He had to consider edibility, visual appeal, and longevity. He made sure to select varieties that could carry on throughout the whole growing season.
The maintenance crew will harvest late-season veggies such as sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts before winter comes and donate those, along with any other remaining edibles, to local hunger-relief organizations.
Beyond those additional end-of-season tasks, Baird said, maintaining edible plants is about the same as maintaining the ornamental annuals the city has planted in years past.
He said he thinks the edible planters fit well in Iowa City, where local-food efforts have a major presence. He believes the planters near the Chauncey Swan parking ramp, where the Iowa City Farmers’ Market pops up twice a week, showcase the project well.
Simon Andrew, assistant to the city manager, said the planters work toward City Council’s strategic goals of promoting a strong local economy, encouraging a vibrant and walkable urban core, and promoting environmental sustainability.
“These planters are a very good, highly visible signal to the public of what possibilities there are,” he said.
Andrew said local foods are an important part of a strong local economy, citing other city-supported local-food efforts, including increased community garden space and edible forestry in public parks.
Savannah Haneline, a ride coordinator at City Park, sees the nine edible planters around the park’s carnival area whenever she goes to work. She said they brighten up the area, and park visitors sometimes ask her about them.
“I knew that they were edible, some of them, but I didn’t know what kinds of plants they were,” she said.
Haneline was surprised to learn that all plants in the pots are edible, and she said she would be open to sampling some of them.